Musicians' Health Collective

Musicians' Health Collective: Supporting the health of musicians (and normal people)

Filtering by Tag: stage fright

Talking about Sweat Glands

I realize that a good portion of the country is covered in snow, including places I've formally lived like Boston and upstate New York.  Yet, it seemed like a good time to talk about...sweat, specifically sweat glands.  Nothing says a good winter read like talking about sweat glands, right?

We have two different types of sweat glands: eccrine glands and apocrine glands.

Apocrine sweat glands, found in limited locations of the body, are heavily influenced by stress and adrenaline.

Apocrine sweat glands, found in limited locations of the body, are heavily influenced by stress and adrenaline.

Eccrine glands are found all over the body and are our body's primary cooling mechanism.  When your body gets overheated, whether from vigorous movement, a hot yoga class, or warm weather, those glands secrete a compound of water/sodium chloride on the skin.  The fancy name for this process is thermoregulation. 

The apocrine glands, however, are just located in a few areas of the body, including the armpits, groin, and scalp, for starters, and these are our "smelly sweat" areas.  (That's a very technical term for the secretion of sialomucin, or sialic acid.  Don't ask me any chemistry's definitely not my field of expertise!)  These glands are more sensitive to adrenaline and rather than secreting odorless water/sodium chloride, instead secrete a combination of proteins, lipids, water, sodium chloride, and gain their odor upon contact with bacteria which "eat" the molecules, causing a change in odor.  This type of sweating is a direct response to stress, whether that be public speaking, anxiety, performance, auditions, etc.

Eccrine Sweat Glands look a bit different from apocrine glands, and are located all over the body.

Eccrine Sweat Glands look a bit different from apocrine glands, and are located all over the body.

Now a good question would be, why do I care about this when I'm freezing in 5 feet of snow?

Well, the apocrine glands are a part of our fight/flight autonomic nervous system response, and are affected during performances, auditions, etc., which you know from experience.  We've probably all experienced the anxiety perspiration phenomenon, whether in publicly speaking, performing, or auditioning.  More importantly, beta-blockers affect aprocrine production by decreasing the overall stress response on the body.  If someone has hyperhidrosis, or excessive sweating, beta-blockers can be prescribed to treat that (assuming they don't have asthma or blood vessel issues).  While the chemical binding process is a bit more complicated than I can certainly explain, your stage fright symptoms are a big part of the way your body responds to adrenaline, which affects your apocrine sweat glands, which can affect your ability to play your instrument.  Obviously excess perspiration is a big problem, especially when handling an instrument, especially a string instrument.

Your bikram class isn't really "sweating out toxins.:

Your bikram class isn't really "sweating out toxins.:

So here's the second part: how often have you heard the slogan "Sweat out your toxins with hot yoga/saunas/hot tubs, etc?"  When people talk in fitness land about hot yoga and sweating out toxins, that's not how it works.  Sweating and moving has benefits- removing toxins just isn't one of them.  As I mentioned above, perspiration isn't composed of toxins- if it's secreted by your eccrine glands, it's a combination of water and sodium.  You don't have 6 beers on a friday night and then at Saturday morning bikram, sweat it all out through your pores.  That doesn't mean that sweating isn't good for you or that a post-alcohol sweat fest won't be smelly, but really, your kidneys' and liver's job is handling toxins.  So drink water (lots of it!), especially if you're going to be sweating, and know that your kidneys and liver will be handling the aftermath of your alcohol/junk food/sugar choices, not your sweat glands.

Talking with John Beder about Beta-Blockers and "Composed"

As some of you may know, John Beder, a classically trained percussionist, is beginning a documentary project on the use of beta-blockers in classical music, focusing on auditions.  I think this is a fascinating project, not only reflecting how classical music may have changed in the last 50 years, but also how performers view perfection and the attempt to achieve audition perfection.   I asked him a few questions in the midst of his kickstarter launch to fund the documentary, "Composed."

K: What's your background in classical music and where did you grow up/study/etc? 

JB: My formal introduction to music started at the Boston Arts Academy where I’d transferred for my sophomore year of High School. It was Boston’s first public arts high school and the only option as far as I was concerned. I wasn’t planning on pursuing Classical Music at first but my instructor at the time forced me to audition for the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra (GBYSO) now known as BYSO. I somehow got in, was way over my head, but managed to keep up and found a serious passion for classical music. I continued down that path and attended Boston University where I was a percussion performance major. During my undergrad I also did a study abroad program at the Royal College of Music in London and participated in the Round Top Festival.

K: What's your interest in creating this documentary and what do you hope to show through the filming of the documentary? 

JB: My interest in this documentary comes from my own personal experience with beta blockers back when I was actively auditioning for festivals and regularly finding myself in stressful situations. I never really took much time thinking about why my love and passion for music had turned into fear and anxiety, but before I really gave it much thought I had already left to pursue film. With "Composed," I hope to elevate that conversation surrounding performance anxiety while also paying homage to what classical musician go through to pursue their dream. People experience anxiety on a regular basis it seems but don’t really enjoy talking about it. This film, I’m hoping, will open up that conversation for not only musicians but other people struggling with anxiety while pursuing their passion. That said I’m in the early stages of filming and am still discovering the path this film will take in its final form.

K: Who have you interviewed thus far? Have there been any surprises in terms of interviewing musicians? Have there been refusals?

JB: So far I’ve interviewed some great people and am always surprised with each interview. Everyone has something interesting to say about the topic and many times I’ve felt a sense of sadness that I didn’t have these conversations during my own struggles with performance anxiety. Here is the list of participants so far.

Diane Nichols, LICSW formerly of the Juilliard School Night Division
Dr. Noa Kageyama, Ph.D The Juilliard School (AKA. Bulletproof Musician)
Matt Decker, Assistant Principal Percussion North Carolina Symphony
Brent Edmondson, Principal Bass Lancaster Symphony
Max Michael Jacob, Freeland Bass, NYC
Tim Genis, Principal Timpani Boston Symphony

Others who’ve recently signed on include

Teddy Abrams, Music Director Louisville Orchestra
Emi Ferguson, Flute Soloist, faculty with The Juilliard School
Zoya Tsvetkova, Violinist Rhode Island Philharmonic, Vermont Symphony

As far as refusals are concerned I’ve had quiet a few. Some big names and others just acquaintances or former colleagues but though some are just not comfortable in front of the camera, many are hesitant to make any statements one way or another about the topic. 

K: Why is your documentary important and relevant to musicians today?

JB: Musicians in general though seem to express some sincere relief at the idea of talking about their struggle with performance anxiety and raising this discussion to a bigger platform. There are tons of people out there who want to talk about this subject and just don’t realize they can with this project. Many of my participants spend time thanking me for choosing the subject, while I’m simultaneously thanking them for participating in a subject that can be extremely personal. 

K: Lastly, how can people support your work and find you on the internet?

JB: If there are musicians or professional health experts out there wanting to participate, they can do so by backing my Kickstarter project or by contacting me directly at I still need participants and would love to talk to anyone willing to talk on camera. The Kickstarter project is mainly to help with travel costs that I severely underestimated for the film. Most of the funding comes from myself, but offsetting some necessary costs will make this project take shape a lot faster and allow for more voices to be heard. 

*Fact: as of 2/1/2015, the project is almost half funded, so let's spread the word!*

What does a Beta-Blocker Do?

So in the last few weeks, I've been busy (and stressed, too!), but I've been thinking about stage fright, sympathetic response of the nervous system, and why things happen to us when we're nervous.  Most musicians will at some point run into beta blockers as an antidote to stage fright- whether a colleague uses them or even a teacher, by adulthood, we have encountered someone who uses them for something not related to its initial prescriptive purpose.  (Musicians are certainly not the only folks who use these-actors, presenters, etc., have been known to use them as well).

Whether or not you take them, it's useful to know what the heck is going on if one does take them. 

First of all, a beta blocker is typically prescribed for folks with heart issues, arrythmia, and who need to lower their standing heart rate.  It tackles the beta-receptors of the smooth muscles of the heart, kidneys, and sympathetic nervous system to prevent norepinephrine and epinephrine (adrenaline) from attaching to beta receptors, which ultimately encourages blood flow (as opposed to restricting vessels) and reduces overall heart rate.  If that language didn't make things clear, let me simplify.  Beta Blockers reduce overall heart rate and prevent adrenaline from playing its role in sympathetic response, AKA fight or flight.  That means it reduces the physiological symptoms of sympathetic system, which affects breathing, fine muscle control, tremors, etc. 

While this may sound like a wonder-drug, there are a few things to consider. 

This is one of the most common BB's: propranolol.

This is one of the most common BB's: propranolol.

-There are side affects, like all mysterious chemical concoctions, and they're fairly standard: nausea, vomiting, headaches, as well as more complex effects if one already has heart problems.  (And of course, there's a warning about sexual dysfunction, so don't forget about that.)

-Beta blockers are banned in the Olympics, but not in auditions.  What would it be like if they were banned in auditions?  It's a question I've pondered, because I think performance under pressure differs so widely person to person.  It would even the playing field, whether that's a good thing or bad thing.

-Beta Blockers only target the symptoms of panic, but don't address any of the psychological/somatic issues.  If your anxiety is based in a constant fear of being good enough, or prepared, or talented, then BB's will only help so much. 

-Some people (audition committees/teachers/etc.) feel that BB's limit expressivity, spontaneity, and in the moment performing creativity, which is something to consider.  If you regularly take them for performances and auditions, it might be worth wondering if you always need them. 

-The sympathetic response does have some benefits when you are in a stressful situation.  Your response time is quickened, your brain is particularly focused, heart rate/blood sugars increase to fuel the body, and muscles tense up to provide speed and power.  The whole point of sympathetic response is to support the body under dangerous conditions, so the changes that occur are meant to support.  I realize that performance is not life or death, but it is an interesting physiological response to notice.

I leave the decisions with you, but notice if beta blockers become a crutch.  Do you need them for every performance opportunity?  Do you find yourself using them for rehearsals as opposed to concerts or auditions?  (And if you're not a BB user, that's great too.)

Read more:

Musicians use Beta Blockers as Performance Enabling Drugs

3 Reasons Why Beta Blockers Could Be Holding You Back

Addiction in the Orchestra

Better Playing Through Chemistry

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